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Sarkozy offers French a recipe for change, but is it to their taste?

Times Staff Writer

For the last 30 years, French presidents have been grave, deliberate men with lofty airs who struggled to lead often weak and divided governments. The inability or unwillingness of those leaders to enact reforms reinforced the stereotype that the French do not want change.

Enter Nicolas Sarkozy, stereotype-buster. His presidential candidacy has been propelled by a conviction that he is strong enough to do what others have not: streamline a bloated state, revive a stagnant economy and restore a nation’s fading grandeur. His promises of bold leadership and free-market reforms echo Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

So two questions accompany Sarkozy, the candidate of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, into Sunday’s runoff election against another self-described standard-bearer of change, Segolene Royal of the Socialist Party. Do the voters share Sarkozy’s vision? And if he wins, can he deliver?

Sarkozy, 52, tells his countrymen they must work harder, cut taxes, take risks. Calling it outrageous that labor disputes routinely shut down the nation, he defies powerful unions that prevent the government from providing basic public transportation during strikes.

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“For 20 years there have been promises of minimum transport service,” he said recently. “And for 20 years, despite the promises, it hasn’t been done. I say to the French: If I am elected president of the republic there will be minimum transport service before the end of 2007.”

These are things the French do not want to hear, according to his rivals. Yet Sarkozy was the top vote getter in last month’s first-round election, with 31% -- more than any center-rightist since Charles De Gaulle himself. He has consistently led opinion polls during the runoff campaign against Royal.

There’s a simple explanation for his success despite the common wisdom, Sarkozy says: The elite have lost touch with the street.

“France does not fear change,” he said during a recent television interview, “France hopes for it.”

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Sarkozy asserted that his critics “live in a milieu that is totally disconnected from the reality of the country. What I want is for the French to understand me. If tomorrow I’m elected, it won’t be the press, the polls, the elites who chose me. It will have been the people.”

Sarkozy’s style and background also represent a change of image for a would-be president. He is the bantam, youthful son of an immigrant father from Hungary and a mother of Greek-Jewish descent. His plain-spoken style is part impatient executive, part steely prosecutor. He spews arguments, statistics and facts. He looks restless when he sits still; his jaw muscles clench as he vows action.

“He is a man of rather phenomenal energy,” said Sarkozy advisor Marc-Philippe Daubresse, a former minister of housing. “He has understood that the French, in a moment of crisis throughout the society, want a path to follow. They want to hear about ideas. He talks about simple values in simple language. The people think that Sarkozy talks the way they talk.”

Running as pioneers

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Like Royal, the first female presidential finalist, Sarkozy represents a new generation of leaders born after World War II. Both he and Royal have run as pioneers intent on breaking with the past. But Royal’s economic program consists largely of familiar, big-government Socialist policies. She wants to modernize politics by making institutions more democratic through voter referendums and citizen advisory panels.

Sarkozy dismisses that emphasis on dialogue, declaring that voters expect presidents to stop talking and lead once they are elected.

Sarkozy’s rhetoric is direct, combative and emotional. His voice gets husky when he describes encounters with grieving families of murder victims while he served as the nation’s interior minister. In his autobiography, he expresses regret for past strains in his marriage that he blames on the pressures of public life. His boyhood heroes include his maternal grandfather, a Jewish doctor who immigrated from Greece, converted to Catholicism when he married, and fought for France in World War I.

Sarkozy’s father was a minor Hungarian nobleman who immigrated after World War II. Sarkozy, a lawyer, got his political start as mayor of Neuilly, a wealthy Paris suburb. His service as interior minister, economy minister and president of the UMP makes him very much a product of the establishment, rivals say.

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Marked by his roots

But in France’s notoriously inbred ruling class, he has managed to retain an outsider status. He did not attend the National School of Administration, the elite graduate school that produced leaders, including Royal. He has survived a ferocious feud with incumbent President Jacques Chirac. And his immigrant roots mark him inescapably as different.

Opponents call him “Sarko the American” partly because he likes U.S. pop culture and rejects the anti-Americanism that pervades politics here. Branding the French model for integrating minorities a failure, Sarkozy praises U.S. leaders such as Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice as examples of a social mobility that should be emulated.

“He’s very admiring of the dynamism of the American people, and of their capacity to give an opportunity to everyone,” said advisor Michel Barnier, a former foreign minister. “He has evoked a French dream that consists of being able to seek a future, not having to submit to a future.”

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But the “American” nickname is also a jab at the ambition of a second-generation striver. Sarkozy’s drive and stamina are prodigious: He jogs every morning and does not smoke or drink, not even French wine. Even many voters who do not support him have told pollsters that he is the most competent, experienced candidate and the one most likely to bring change.

But some voters also say his aggressiveness makes them uneasy. And rivals accuse him of an authoritarian streak.

“Because of his closeness with the business milieu and media powers, because of his taste for intimidation and menace, [he] will concentrate power as it has never been concentrated,” said centrist leader Francois Bayrou, who finished a strong third in the voting last month. “Because of his temperament, and the issues he chooses to stir up, he will risk aggravating strains in the social fabric, notably by pursuing policies that favor the richest.”

Sarkozy insists that he has a winning formula for growth and prosperity for all. He pledges to overhaul a bureaucratic mentality in both government and business that ensures long vacations and early retirement but discourages hiring and entrepreneurship.

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He wants to scuttle the 35-hour workweek and reward overtime with higher pay and lower taxes. He has set a goal of cutting the 8.7% unemployment rate to 5%, offering “the right to get up early and work hard” to jobless youths in immigrant-dominated housing projects. He plans to trim the huge public sector by cutting one of every two government jobs that are left vacant by retirement.

Last year, Chirac’s timid labor reforms collapsed when protesters flooded the streets. Critics say that Sarkozy’s ambitious agenda, coupled with his combative personality, could generate conflict with unions and students.

Asked during the television interview about potential unrest, Sarkozy replied, “It would then be better just to say to the French, ‘I am not here to bother anybody, [just] to listen and do nothing.’ But that’s not my style. I think to the contrary, it is by provoking changes, bringing a politics of effort, creating a dynamic of full employment and growth, that we’ll advance.”

Years as top cop

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Sarkozy’s four years as the nation’s top cop (he resigned in late March at the start of the campaign) displayed his hands-on approach to governing. Senior law enforcement officials who worked with him say he set clear, demanding goals -- an approach reminiscent of LAPD Chief William J. Bratton.

Sarkozy held monthly meetings to laud police commanders in areas with the best crime statistics and grill those with the worst, creating an obsession with numbers among a revitalized, if intimidated, brass, according to senior officials. He sent the police back into neighborhoods that had become no man’s lands. Crime went down about 9% nationwide. It had risen 18% under the previous Socialist government.

“With his punch, his convictions, he certainly took people who were essentially sleeping on the job and put them back to work,” said a recently retired senior police official who asked not to be named. “He was effective at setting goals for the police and working toward them. That’s his best side. He helped part of society regain a sense of confidence about their security.”

On the other hand, the retired official disagreed with the dismantling of a Socialist community outreach program that had tried to change the traditional paramilitary style of policing. Since nationwide riots in the fall of 2005, youth gangs in immigrant neighborhoods have seen Sarkozy as a nemesis; critics say his tough talk worsens tensions reflected by increased violence against police.

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But some initiatives have contradicted that image. He is one of the few politicians to call for a French version of affirmative action. And he can take credit for a historic achievement -- the creation in 2003 of the first national Muslim governing council, a move that came after years of official neglect of a Muslim community of more than 5 million people.

“I was pleasantly surprised by his desire to succeed with this proposal,” said Kamal Kabtane, rector of Lyon’s main mosque and a founding member of the council. “I sat by his side in meetings. I saw him fight how one must fight in order to achieve. It was important to him. He is a winner. He isn’t satisfied with getting halfway there.”

A break with the past

After decades of presidents who played it safe, partisans say, he already has shaken up politics by instilling the idea of a break with the past. Polls have shown a 16-percentage-point rise in the value that the French place on work compared with issues such as security and family, campaign advisor Daubresse said, attributing that trend to Sarkozy’s campaign.

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“He has waged an ideological combat that until now the right was uneasy about fighting,” Daubresse said. “The right seemed to be apologizing for being what it is, as if we were ashamed of our politics. He has won the battle of ideas of this campaign.”

rotella@latimes.com


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